The Blue Jays have many options for using their pitching assets in 2016. Here is one such scenario
Much has been made about the questions surrounding the Blue Jays’ pitching in 2016, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. The primary issue is balance: rotation vs bullpen, 2016 success vs player development for 2017 and beyond, and player needs vs those of the team.
Here is one scenario that might work. I present it as a straw man (in the business, not the pejorative sense) for discussion and debate. It comes with the usual caveats about injury, under (or over) performance, and additional roster moves.
The paradigm on which this scenario is based is to use the Blue Jays’ depth in starters to place greater emphasis on bullpen innings and on rotational flexibility. Probably not as extreme as the third-time-through-the-order concept proposed by Tom Tango and discussed by certain foolish writers, but rather a recognition that pitchers who average six innings per start are rare, and a willingness to go to the bullpen earlier can be greatly to a team’s advantage. In addition, optimizing the rotation to take advantage of favourable matchups and to avoid negative situations can also shift the odds in the Jays’ favour.
This idea is made possible by the Jays having multiple multi-inning possibilities in the 2016 bullpen.
The starting rotation
The first four in the starting rotation are relatively set in Stroman, Dickey, Happ and Estrada. They would pitch as they have in the past, but with less of an emphasis on going deep in games. With a strong bullpen with several multi-inning arms, the Jays would be less hesitant to go to the bullpen after six, or even five, strong innings. After all, a fresh, rested bullpen arm is frequently a more powerful weapon than even a strong starter after 6+ innings and twice through the order.
The Blue Jays would, in this scenario, also be more open to inserting spot starters where circumstances warrant. Suppose that Dickey is scheduled to pitch, but the weather is not cooperating – it is raining, or particularly cold, or in some other way highly unfavourable to a knuckleball pitcher. It could work to the team’s advantage to push Dickey back a day and have Hutchison make that start. Or suppose a starter were scheduled to pitch the final game in a series against a team who had historically hit him very well. Inserting a spot starter would push the scheduled starter into the next series (as the Jays did at the beginning of 2015 to give Mark Buehrle the chance to miss the Yankees). Or even if the starting rotation were just showing signs of fatigue, an extra day of rest could prove worthwhile
I would propose to have Jessee Chavez take the #5 spot at the beginning of the season. His first half ERA in 2015 was 3.40, and it was an even lower 3.14 in 2014. But I would partner him with Aaron Sanchez, in that Chavez would be expected to pitch no more than 5-6 innings and then Sanchez would (performance and situation permitting) finish the game.
In the second half of the season (again, performance permitting) the two would switch roles, with Sanchez moving into the rotation and Chavez being the partner. This idea would achieve multiple goals. First, it would keep Chavez fresh and take advantage of his (hopefully!) excellent performance before he tires. Second, it would give Sanchez a transition to starting. And finally, if Chavez + Sanchez can largely finish every fifth game by themselves, it would provide a rest for the remainder of the bullpen.
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I see Storen closing with Cecil pitching set-up, both in relatively conventional roles. Hopefully there would be some flexibility as circumstances warrant, but many baseball experts believe that late-inning relievers find it easier to prepare mentally when they have defined roles. Plus, these are likely the roles that each of these players would prefer, to maximize their free agent value after 2016, so they should be both comfortable and highly motivated.
Osuna could be stretched out to perhaps 100-120 innings (he pitched 78 in 2015) as a late-game 1-3 inning reliever, usually coming in to the game in the 6th or 7th. Possibly, in the second half, with a ~4-5 inning spot start or two, if circumstances permit.
Loup would be the LOOGY, and (as above) Sanchez would also be a multiple-inning reliever for the first ~half of the season. Sanchez would have the advantage of knowing that he would be pitching in the Chavez starts, which would allow him to prepare, but he should also be available to pitch limited innings between those Chavez starts.
I see Hutchison as the true long man and spot starter, though a case could be made to have him start in AAA. Buffalo could be problematic, however, as Hutch would technically have to pass through optional waivers and there is a possibility that a team would make a claim, forcing Toronto to revoke him.
As a long man, Hutch would frequently come into blowout games with less pressure, which might help him to overcome the largely mental (?) issues he faced in 2015. I see Hutch as the first-off-the-bench injury replacement if someone in the rotation were to be hurt: in the first half, because Sanchez might not be ready, and in the second half because Chavez might be tiring. I also see Hutch as the primary wild-card option to allow the Jays to skip a pitcher in unfavourable circumstances (say Dickey is scheduled, but it is raining) or when the Blue Jays want to realign the rotation to optimize a matchup.
The seventh bullpen spot would be a low-leverage reliever such as a Schultz or Tepera … or possibly even a Biagini or a Delabar.
Impact on 2016 regular season
Under this scenario, the Jays would have Hutch, Chavez and Sanchez all relatively stretched out for possible spot start or injury fill-in duty. This could be important – in 2015, the Jays had 10 starts from Felix Doubront (4), Scott Copeland (3), Matt Boyd (2) and Todd Redmond (1). The Jays went 3-7 in those 10 games. As Shapiro has pointed out, depth and preparation translates into wins.
This scenario would also maximize Chavez’s contribution in the first half, where he has historically performed well, and would give Sanchez time to ease into a starting role (with the benefit of only having to go through the opposition order twice). And critically, the Jays would achieve these goals without sacrificing the 2016 bullpen.
Impact on 2016 playoffs
Managing the workloads of the starting rotation, both by pulling them earlier and by giving them extra days of rest when Hutch/Chavez/Sanchez/Osuna spot start, should reduce the risk of injury and keep the starters fresher for a (hopefully!) long playoff run.
Impact on 2017 and beyond
The negative to this scenario is that the Jays risk losing both their closer and setup man to free agency after 2016. But hopefully this issue can be overcome with extensions or acquisitions.
The positives are that Sanchez should pitch 50-60 innings in relief in the first half, and hopefully ~90 starting innings over ~15 starts in the second half. He should therefore be fully stretched out and ready to assume a full-time starting role in 2017.
Similarly, Osuna will have pitched 100-120 innings in stints of 1-3 innings, with possibly (?) a spot start or two (likely limited to 4-5 innings). He should therefore be ready to transition into a starting role in 2017, either directly or through a half-year partnering similar to what I propose for Sanchez in 2016.
The bottom line
This is one scenario showing how the Jays could maximize their chances to win the AL East in 2016 while still preserving their staff for the playoffs and developing them for 2017 and beyond. Obviously, there are many such scenarios, and the Jays will have decisions to make. But isn’t that a wonderful problem to have?